April 6, 2010

Remembering ... Personal Ensign



“The Derby winner is loose on the lead!” The words echoed in my ears, as the great Phipps filly spun her wheels on the messy Churchill Downs’ dirt course. Everything was on the line for Personal Ensign that damp afternoon. A win would ensure her place among the all-time greats of racing history, as she would become the first major American horse to go undefeated since the legendary Colin, some eighty years before. A loss would drop her legacy down a notch, still a special horse, but not with the immortality of a perfect record.

“The Derby winner is loose on the lead!” I kept hearing those words, mainly because my partner, that day, my father, kept saying them playfully after announcer Tom Durkin had said them early in the race. At the eighth pole, it still appeared hopeless as we stared at the TV monitors at the Meadowlands.  Four lengths behind Winning Colors, who was running her best race since winning the Derby half a year earlier, her task appeared too great.

“The Derby winner is loose on the lead!” But Personal Ensign was no ordinary horse. With dogged determination she kicked into another gear. She was the only one who did not know how to lose. Rider Randy Romero kept asking for more and the great filly kept giving more. She ignored the nasty weather and track conditions and reeled in the Derby winner, who was loose on the lead. In the most thrilling finish in the history of the Breeders‘ Cup, Personal Ensign stuck her nose in front of Winning Colors in the final stride. It was a case of a true champion acting like only a true champion could. She retired perfect. Immortality was hers.

Personal Ensign was foaled and raised at Claiborne Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. A dark bay daughter of Private Account out of the Hoist the Flag mare, Grecian Banner, Personal Ensign was bred in Kentucky by her owner, by legendary owner, Ogden Phipps. She was one of the greatest ever to carry the famous black silks and cherry cap of the Phipps family. She arrived on the racing scene in 1986, and began her career winning two races as a juvenile. Her maiden win was so impressive, winning by 13 lengths, that only two others challenged her in the prestigious Frizette Stakes. Sent off at odds on, she displayed her true grit by wearing down an excellent Majestic Light filly named Collins, by a head. Two starts and already a grade 1 winner, Personal Ensign was destined for greatness. Unfortunately she broke her left hind leg in two places while preparing for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Five screws were inserted to aid in healing and to keep the bone together. This was not the end of her career, though, far from it.

The star returned to the races eleven months later, rattling off four consecutive wins against top competition in New York. Despite nearly a year away, and a major injury, Personal Ensign was absolutely dominant in two allowance races at Belmont, before winning the Rare Perfume Stakes and the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes, all with almost shocking ease. Her trainer Shug McGaughey, felt a trip to Hollywood Park for the 1987 Breeders' Cup Distaff would be too much to ask of her in too short a time period, so she was put away for the season, still unbeaten after six career starts.

If her first two seasons were slightly unfulfilled because of the injury, 1988 would be her opportunity to accomplish everything. After winning two stakes easily at Belmont Park, the perfect filly made her first trip outside of New York. Watching that day at Monmouth Park, I remember wondering if the really nice Jersey filly Grecian Flight could give her a race. She could not. Seeing Personal Ensign in person at four was like seeing pure power in the form of a beautiful thoroughbred horse. She won the Molly Pitcher Stakes by eight lengths, and to this day I consider it one of the more impressive wins I have ever seen in person. Next came the males in the Whitney, and another easy win. Number ten. She dropped down to mile and powered by Winning Colors in the Maskette, and then romped with a repeat win in the Beldame. Finally she was able to run in the Breeders’ Cup, so it was on to Kentucky.

The Phipps filly arrived in Louisville with seven grade 1 wins under to her credit, and 12 wins in 12 lifetime starts. After the amazing script played itself out in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, she was retired on the highest possible note. Her three year career comprised only thirteen races, but in that span she stamped herself as one of the finest distaffers ever race on America soil.

A perfect racing career led to a perfect broodmare career. Personal Ensign became one of the most important broodmares in American history. Her very first foal, Miner's Mark, was a grade 1 stakes winner. Next came the nice stakes colt, Our Emblem, who went on to sire Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem. Personal Ensign also foaled, Traditionally, was a grade 1 winner at the races and as a sire. Personal Ensign's best runner was undoubtedly, My Flag. My Flag won four grade 1 stakes, including the 1995 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She also tried males, and was third in the 1996 Belmont Stakes. Like Personal Ensign, My Flag went on to achieve great success as a broodmare, notably with the Eclipse Award winning filly, Storm Flag Flying, an undefeated juvenile champion. Her BC Juvenile fillies win, meant that three generations of females won the Cup, beginning with Personal Ensign, an amazing feat. Personal Ensign was named the Broodmare of the year in 1996. Her breeding career ended ten years later, after a barren year, at the age of 22. Personal Ensign was pensioned to Claiborne Farm to live her life in comfort, where she remains today at the age of 26.

Whether Personal Ensign is deserving of being called one of the greatest of all time, might be subject to debate, there can be little doubt that she was one of the greatest to appear on the racing scene since Spectacular Bid retired in 1980. Was her racing career ‘managed’ to avoid defeat? That may have played a small part, but more likely she was handled carefully to avoid any worsening of her juvenile injury. I will leave you with this parting shot…it is hard to argue with perfection. I remember you Personal Ensign.

18 comments:

Ciarán said...

perfect piece brian :P

Brian Zipse said...

Thanks Ciarán, but it was the horse that was perfect, not the piece.

Ciarán said...

i know, i'm jus slaggin!

Vivian said...

Wow.....I am breathless just reading about it! Great job Brian.

railrunner said...

She won the Breeders' Cup Distaff the year I was born so I didn't get to see her live, but it's still one of my favorite races of all-time.

Great piece Brian!

Silent Sunday said...

It was great to relive the BC Distaff...and I will admit I was more of a fan of Winning Colors...though at this point I wasn't hooked on the game..I was still young and got to see very little racing...

But I think one of the most impressive things I took from this, especially considering where breeding and the state of the sport are concerned, is that she came back from an injury and was terrific. That injury in today's time would usually end in retirement automatically for money's sake. Again, the good ole days.

LDP said...

Wish I had gotten to see her, she was the east coast version of Zenyatta. She faced the best when she beat Winning Colors, and she beat her while she was at her best. Though he is not unbeaten, that dogged determination you talk of, reminds me of Juvenile champ Lookin at Lucky. Both just never give up. It's those horses that seem to capture the heart, since they are the one's who constantly display it on the track.

Lynne Veitch said...

You've done a great piece Brian. I remember her so well as we were stabled only a couple of barns away. & there was a "rivalry between the P. E. fans & the Winning Colors fans sort of like Zenyatta & Rachel today, although not quite as volatile!!! Folks were a little more courteous in NY in those days.And I am glad you did get to see P. E. in action.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised you haven't mentioned Zenyatta, about to race for her
16th victory. She was given a welcome at Oaklawn worthy of a rock star or a Presidnt. I hope she races and wins safely.

BTW it isn't her fault that Rachel Alexandra will not be in the starting gate with her.

the other Rachel

Brian Zipse said...

Rachel,

This piece is about Personal Ensign. It is not about Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, or even Secretariat.

personalensign79 said...

Excellent article. I was 8 years old when I saw her in the Whitney. She is one of my all-time favorites.

Ernie said...

Thanks for remembering a great horse, Brian. I think I'd cry if I saw her today. I mean, I got sad seeing an elderly Ogygian.

I was there, upstairs, for Personal Ensign's debut. She went faster than the stakes that day.

Shug keeping her at such a high level says much about the HOF trainer.

Nick said...

Wonderful article. I enjoyed reading every word of it. I am thrilled that Personal Ensign is living a happy, healthy life.

Anonymous said...

Great article, Brian. I loved the perfection of Personal Ensign...

Brian Zipse said...

Rest in Peace Beautiful Girl.

Rachel said...

Her granddaughter Storm Flag Flying was one of my favorite horses. RIP PE.

Lynne Veitch said...

It must have been meant to be that Personal Ensign should reappear for the fans before she said goodbye. And for you to be the one to write about her so poignantly.

personalensign79 said...

Rest in Peace gorgeous. What timing with the beautiful article just days before her passing.